Karen Gunderson

DES MOINES SUNDAY REGISTER: The Arts: Windows on the Heavens: September 22, 1985

Mount Vernon, IA. – Karen Gunderson paints clouds.  She paints cumulous clouds, nimbus clouds, cirrus clouds. She does not paint those dreamy, distant cotton-ball clouds that were the object of so many daydreaming kids.  There’s no dreamy reverie here.  Her clouds are heavy, massive bodies that look as if they’re formed from shaving cream.

The 20 or so of her works on exhibition through Oct 4 in the Armstrong Gallery on the campus of Cornell College here are bold, sculptural works painted from a very close range.  Imagine the view out of the window of a jet as it pierces the clouds and you have a pretty good idea of Gunderson’s perspective.  These are the kind of rolling clouds that buffet planes, parting to give glimpses of a deep blue sky that in her paintings, at least, serves in much the same way that negative space frames sculpture.

Take, for example, the 6-by-2 1/2-foot oil painting “Sky Divide.”  Here a more-than-vaguely-human mouth and chin are carved from clouds, then set against other cloud masses that could be body parts.  The cloud-figure, although they are the apparent subject of the work, appear to be little more than framing for the central, blue-sky figure (in essence, a negative figure) left by the parted clouds.  The viewer’s perspective is that of standing a little too close to a piece of sculpture to see the whole form.

However you read the floating forms – and it appears the artist does intend us to read these shapes as something other than bodies of mist – the emphasis is the investigation of the light and its effect on the weight of objects, a sort of literal study of atmospheric effects.  Gunderson imbues her clouds with a luminescence that plays rather ironically against the almost-tangible edges of the clouds.

Here and there the suns seems on the verge of appearing from behind Gunderson’s clouds.  Light beams break through cloud masses; rings of light dance on heavily layered clouds.  The effect is one of curious anticipation as we wait for the clouds to move on and allow the sun to emerge.

Gunderson, who holds a master of art degree from the University of Iowa, walks a thin line between Surrealism and trompe l’oeil.  Her paintings, particularly her larger works (“Shared Light” is a whopping 17 feet, 4 inches wide),  have the look and feel of windows on the heavens.  It’s as if we were looking out the window atop a mile-high building.  And yet, one is reminded of Rene Magritte’s treatment of the sky as a not-too-secret hiding place for all sorts of images and jokes.

Gunderson is by no means so obvious as Magritte, but, to the patient observer or the agile daydreamer, her clouds do seem to be on the verge of yielding some form, joke, or visual play.